Learn About Migraine Food Triggers

Tidbits from a Johns Hopkins Neurologist's Book

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Eating is one of life's greatest pleasures. Unfortunately though, sometimes our favorite foods can be the most provoking for our migraines.

How Common is Food the Culprit of Our Migraines?

The percentage of people who report food as a trigger or aggravating factor in their migraines varies based on a number of studies. One article in Journal of the Neurological Sciences reports that this percentage ranges from 12 to 60 percent.

The most common food triggers reported were:

  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol
  • Cheese

How Does Food Trigger Migraines?

The precise mechanism behind how food precipitates migraines and/or contributes to their severity is still a puzzle and largely unknown.

Food Triggers and Their Substitutions

In his book, “Heal your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain," Johns Hopkins neurologist Dr. David Buchholz’s recommends eliminating ALL of the following migraine food triggers.

He also offers tidbits on what is considered "migraine-safe."

Be aware that some of these foods may not trigger your migraines. Do what is right for you and speak with your personal physician to sort out a reasonable plan. 

  • Caffeine (even decaf and tea): Instead, try caffeine-free herbal tea. Make sure the herbal tea has no citrus or other potential migraine-triggering flavors, like almond or raisin.
  • Chocolate: White chocolate without cocoa is okay; carob is "questionable."
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG):  Be wary as some foods may contain "hidden MSG," as in salty snacks, "seasoned" croutons, prepackaged meals, and veggie burgers.
  • Processed meats and processed fish: Avoid altogether—no more packaged turkey or ham.
  • Aspartame: This is an artificial sweetener and remains controversial as to its role in headaches.
  • Cheese and some other dairy sources: The more aged the cheese, the worse (due to high tyramine). "OK" cheeses include cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, cream cheese, and "good quality" American cheeses. Stay away from yogurt (including frozen yogurt), sour cream, and buttermilk, as these are potential migraine triggers.
  • Certain fruits: Citrus fruits and their juices, as well as bananas and raisins should be avoided. Dried fruit that is preserved with sulfites may also be migraine-triggering. 
  • Fresh yeast-risen baked goods: "Less then one-day old" breads, especially sourdough is a no-no. This sadly includes fresh bagels and donuts from your favorite Saturday morning bakery.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol can trigger your migraine or headache attacks when drinking it (cocktail headache) or the next day, during your hangover
  • Other "Migraine Avoids": sauerkraut, pea pods, certain beans (broad Italian, lima, fava, navy), lentils, onions, garlic, maybe soy products
  • "Maybe Migraine Avoids:" These are questionable migraine triggers: soy, milk, pork, mushrooms, and tomatoes.

Other studies suggest that fatty foods and nuts are migraine-triggering. The good news is that scientists are more closely examining the role of nutrition and diet in migraine development.

 In fact, one 2014 study in the Journal of Headache and Pain suggests that a vegan and/or elimination diet may reduce the severity of a person's migraines—more studies are needed to better understand this likely complex relationship.

What Does This All Mean?

Let's be honest here. Eliminating all these food sources is extraordinarily difficult. That being said, I think the point here is that you have to be "all in" to minimize the potential of food as a trigger for your vicious migraine attacks. You cannot take a loose or here-and-there approach, which will likely create frustration in the end.

That all being said, is avoiding migraine triggers the right advice?

 There is some debate now as to whether triggers (especially food triggers) are as pertinent to migraines as we once thought. Ultimately, with time, you can slowly and carefully add back foods to your diet, which is promising and hopefully makes you feel better.

The Bottom Line

All in all, do what is best for you. You have to be passionate about making a change. Remember, it's okay if it takes you some time to make these dietary changes. This is not going to happen overnight. And, of course, you can still be a "foodie" and have migraines. If anything, (and I'm always trying to look on the bright side of things), this is a challenge to be more creative in the kitchen!


Bulchholz David. Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program For Taking Charge of Your Pain. New York: Workman Publishing, 2002.

Bunner AE, Agarwal U, Gonzales JF, Valente F, Barnard ND. Nutrition intervention for migraine: a randomized crossover trial. J Headache Pain. 2014;15(1):69.

Finocchi C, Sivori G. Food as trigger and aggravating factor of migraine. Neurol Sci. 2012 May;33 Suppl 1:S77-80.

Hoffmann J & Recober A. Migraine and triggers: Post hoc ergo proper hoc? Curr Pain Headache Rep 2013 Oct;17(10).